Solar energy projects place farmland as ‘easy target’

Associate Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Oct. 11, 2016) — A term that’s grown quietly in environmental circles across the nation over the last several years may have finally reached our regional lexicon last month.
Energy sprawl.
It’s a phrase meant to illustrate the significant amount of land being set aside for renewable energy interests — and in this region it applies particularly to solar energy.
It should be concerning to regional agriculturists, said Gail Owings, a board member for the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, an Easton nonprofit.
The region has increasingly become a desirable host for large-scale renewable energy projects — with an important twist.
“Ag land has become an easy target for these projects,” she told the Governor’s Intergovernmental Commission for Agriculture on Sept. 27.
The commission, which meets twice a year and exists to promote state agriculture through cooperation of local, state and other agencies, invited Owings to discuss the issue before the group. The region is caught in the middle of an “(energy) grid space race,” she said, that doesn’t respect the planning or zoning of local jurisdictions and is rapidly cutting into the state’s already declining number of productive farm acres.
“We know of at least 2,000 acres that” have been proposed for solar panel farms, she said. “We have heard up to 6,000 acres.”
Owings and several governor’s commission members singled out the state’s Public Service Commission, an independent agency that regulates public utility services.
It’s come under the spotlight in recent years because it has the power to approve large-scale utility projects, such as wind and solar farms, even if they violate the wishes and ordinances of local jurisdictions.
The Public Service Commission drew the ire of Kent County residents last year when they learned Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia alternative energy company, was seeking the commission’s approval to erect between 25 and 35 500-foot-tall wind turbines across 5,000 acres of county land.
The company balked at the opposition and retired the project, but it returned this year with a new plan: To place solar panels on 330 acres about 10 miles south of Chestertown in a project called Mills Branch Solar. It’s also been unpopular with locals.
It’s important to support renewable energy, Owings said, but with stipulations that protect important natural resources.
“We want to use these projects as a call to action on renewables,” she said.
Cheryl DeBerry, a governor’s commission member, said she’s seen similar energy land grabs in western Maryland where she lives.
Farmers, already struggling with low grain and dairy prices, are finding it more difficult to pass up what the energy companies offer: 20-year leases that pay up to $1,000 an acre yearly.
It’s more than they can make producing crops, she said.
“It’s this rippling effect,” DeBerry said. “At what point is it too much?”
Laura Price, another governor’s commission member, said she’s working on legislation that would require energy companies to honor local zoning laws instead of seeking approval from the Public Service Commission.
Price is a legislative liaison for the Maryland Association of Counties where state government interference has been an issue, she said.
“I see more and more things being taken over by the state,” she said.
The state needs to set boundaries for the energy industry that respect local jurisdictions, Owings said, or the industry’s future will be at risk.
“It’s death by 1,000 cuts,” she said.